There’s nothing like work-based learning to help students evaluate their fit for a career and help them develop valuable 21st century skills.

As a high school student, I knew what I liked (English class, social sciences) and what I didn’t (math). But when it came to planning a future career, I consistently drew a blank. I envied my classmates who were certain they wanted to be a teacher, veterinarian, or engineer. 

Seeing my struggle, my school counselor suggested I take advantage of the school’s internship program. After assessing my strengths and preferences, we decided a stint at our small town’s newspaper might be a good fit.

At first, I sat quietly at the desks of reporters as they chased stories, did phone interviews, and conducted research. In time, I graduated to writing obituaries. Eventually I got my first story assignment, which led to regular articles, including a front-page byline. 

By the end of the semester, I was certain I wanted to study journalism in university. And my experience at the newspaper gave me an edge over other applicants. With first-hand knowledge of the anatomy of a news article, I aced my entry tests and had my pick of top-rated journalism programs.

Read ACTE Whitepaper: Delivering Real-World Experiences Through Work-Based Learning

The advantages of the internship experience didn’t end there. When I got to university, some of the introductory classes covered material I’d already learned by doing.

With a head start on reporting, interviewing, and writing news articles, I navigated those early months with confidence. Although I still had a lot to learn, I drew on the soft skills I’d begun to develop on the job, like communication, organization, listening, and attention to detail—critical for my chosen career. 

All of this because I once applied my strengths to a work-based learning opportunity.

While programs like my internships have existed for decades, their value is beginning to reach critical mass as employers increasingly express dissatisfaction with the preparedness of graduates entering the workforce.

A 2019 study found that 73 per cent of employers perceived that it was “very or somewhat difficult” to find qualified candidates for jobs. About 34 per cent reported that schools have not properly prepared students for jobs.

Work-based learning may be one of the key factors for helping students choose and prepare for a career that fits them, and develop the 21st century skills we all need in today’s workforce.

What is Work-Based Learning?

Any instructional strategies or programs that serve to connect the classroom and the workplace can be considered work-based learning. 

It could be as structured as a well-defined apprenticeship or internship program or as easy to implement as a classroom-assigned research project that requires students to learn from someone in the working world. 

Many school districts across the U.S. have integrated, federally supported career and technical education (CTE) programs designed to prepare students for real-world careers.

Although most of these focus on technical skills, including trades, work-based learning can include more academic pursuits.

Drawing on recent research, policy literature and federal legislation, the U.S. Department of Education reports that a comprehensive work-based learning program should contain three components:

  • The alignment of classroom and workplace learning
  • The application of academic, technical and employability skills in a work setting
  • Support from classroom or workplace mentors

It’s important to know that work-based learning programs are supported at the federal level through Perkins funding, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. If your district is looking to implement a program of your own, funding may be available.

Why is Work-Based Learning Important?

The future of work is more undefined than ever before. It seems that the world, the economy and the marketplace are changing almost minute to minute. 

Advances in technology and the rise of artificial intelligence are creating career opportunities that we couldn’t have conceived of even a few years ago. Our ever-evolving world, including a global pandemic and a long overdue focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, are even changing the way people work. 

Static information about careers is no longer relevant or helpful for the next generation of employees and entrepreneurs. Accustomed to unprecedented access to a wide-open world thanks to technology, today’s youth are most engaged in their education when they understand how it connects to their future. 

According to a report for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, half of a group of high school dropouts surveyed blamed uninteresting classes as a major factor for their decision to discontinue school. Four out of five said they wished they had more opportunity to do real-world learning.

In the workplace, employers are disappointed that new hires aren’t bringing important non-academic “soft” skills they need in today’s job market. The same 2019 study uncovered that employers aren’t finding the talent they need and outlined the top skills they’re looking for, which include:

  • Listening skills (74 per cent)
  • Attention to detail and attentiveness (70 per cent)
  • Critical thinking (67 per cent)
  • Interpersonal skills (65 per cent)

We also know that most students can’t afford the rising tuition costs of education that will prepare for a future career that may not be a good fit for them. 

Back in high school, this was part of my anxiety as I thought about what to study in university. I didn’t want to “waste” money on education that took me in the wrong direction. 

The opportunity to test drive a career was incredibly validating for me and helped me feel confident in selecting the right program. Even for students who feel more certain about their future, work-based learning can be an important tool to help validate their plans.

How to Incorporate Work-Based Learning Activities and Assignments Into Your College and Career Readiness Plans

Even if your district doesn’t have a formal CTE program or internships, individual schools and educators can still integrate work-based learning into the curriculum.

Ideas include:

  • Building connections with employers in the community: For a more personal approach, school counselors can develop relationships with a diverse number of employers and professionals and invite them to share their experiences and wisdom. These connections can be leveraged for activities like career fairs, field trips, guest lecturers, job shadowing and service learning.
  • Mentorships: Encourage and support students to identify and approach a mentor who works in the field they are considering. Help them set up bi-weekly meetings or phone calls so they can ask questions and learn about the work they do.
  • Real-world and/or social entrepreneurship: For students interested in running their own business, a culminating project for an appropriate senior-level class could be to launch a business or social initiative. Use programs like WIT, a youth entrepreneur platform, to help support students through the project.
  • Fellowships and problem-solving initiatives: The Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS), currently in 11 states and partnering with 13 universities, helps connect students with industry partners who are looking for creative solutions to in-house problems. Students have the opportunity to develop and propose solutions and then get direct feedback from employers. Programs like this one help build those important soft skills employers seek.
  • Design projects and activities that help develop employability skills: Students in middle school and above can begin to work on projects that increase awareness of college and career readiness. These could be as straightforward as research assignments that identify and describe specific careers or as grand as a “maker” project that prioritizes some kind of hands-on learning to build creativity, persistence, social responsibility, and teamwork.

How Xello Can Help You Facilitate a Work-Based Learning Program

Xello will soon be introducing a work-based learning module as an optional add-on for U.S school districts purchasing Xello for Middle School and High School. 

Among other functions, it will help program administrators provide all students with easy access to the work-based learning opportunities available in their community to help create connections between workplaces and schools. More information will be announced soon.

The stakes for choosing a fulfilling and sustainable career are higher than ever. The expansion of work-based learning programs could be the answer many students need to help them get on the right track. 

High quality work based learning is integrated into the fabric of a school district’s college and career readiness programs and curriculum. 

It’s been more than 25 years since I completed my own internship program with my local newspaper. It was one of the most formative experiences of my education—and I have a career that was built upon it.

Read ACTE Whitepaper: Delivering Real-World Experiences Through Work-Based Learning

                    Heather Hudson
                    ABOUT HEATHER

                    Heather Hudson is a Toronto-based freelance writer and journalist. She specializes in content marketing, corporate storytelling and good old-fashioned journalism. You can read some of her work in The Toronto Star and learn more about her at heatherhudson.ca.